More than farming: Discover the true potential of Indiana’s agriculture sector with AgriNovus

When you picture “agriculture” in Indiana, you might imagine old red barns, rusty pickup trucks, or weather vanes spinning over open fields.

Growing up on a family farm between Auburn and Garrett, that’s what Beth Bechdol had in mind, too, and it’s part of the reason she thought she’d never go into agriculture.

After high school, she left northeast Indiana to study international politics and relations at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. But it was during her time away at school that she realized perhaps she had overlooked the potential of Indiana’s food and agriculture sector too soon.

Indiana has a strong reputation as a state for traditional agriculture. Now that image is evolving.

While studying overseas in Munich, Germany, in college, her father—one of the original board members of the Indiana Soybean Association—convinced her to spend a week in Moscow, Russia. While there, Bechdol stayed with a project manager for the American Soybean Association, which was funding expansion of the country’s domestic hog inventory, and she discovered that agriculture can be about more than traditional farming. In fact, it’s an exciting, innovative, global industry.

“I thought: ‘Wow, this is international trade; this is international relations and geopolitics and International development,’” Bechdol says. “Everything that I was studying at Georgetown was there on the frontlines, being implemented and executed in an agricultural setting.”

Today, as President and CEO of a statewide initiative called AgriNovus Indiana, Bechdol is helping other ambitious students and innovative companies alike come to a similar realization.

Indiana’s agriculture sector has more to offer than traditional farm life. Actually, it has a quintessential combination of food, agriculture, science, and technology that makes it fertile ground for 21st-century talent and innovation.  

Since 2015, AgriNovus has been the voice of Indiana’s evolving agbioscience sector, sharing this message, and working directly with companies both in-state and worldwide to show them why the Hoosier state—of all places—is the best location for their next phase of growth.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Bechdol to learn more about her work with AgriNovus at the intersection of agbioscience (Ag+Bio+Science), and how it ultimately affects everyone in Indiana.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and Beth Bechdol at the National FFA Blue Room where students could experience technology in agriculture.

IFW: Since your trip to Russia, you’ve had a lot of experience in the agriculture sector—both on the national level and in state government. Tell us more your background.

BB: When I came back to Georgetown my senior year of college, I interned for the American Soybean Association’s Washington D.C. office. That happened to be the same year that NAFTA was passed, so I was able to be a part of agriculture’s first appearance in an international trade agreement.

In D.C., I was right in the middle of all the things I loved and wanted to study: policy, politics, and trade. It was then that I knew that I wanted to work in agriculture because I felt like I was still carrying on my family’s legacy of farming, but I was able to do it in my own way.

After college, I started in a consulting practice that specialized in food and agricultural policy issues. Then I went to the Senate Agriculture Committee where I worked for Senator Richard Lugar. After that, I went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Again, I was doing trade policy, trade negotiations, and Farm Bill implementation—all of those things tied to policy and legislative issues, and I fell in love with that.

When we came back home to Auburn in 2005 (because of my mother’s terminal health diagnosis), I had the opportunity to be part of the Indiana Department of Agriculture. That allowed me to stay engaged and passionate about food and agriculture, but on a more localized level. I began to work on similar topics, but on a different scale, with different organizational structures, and different players. But I was still very much policy-focused.

IFW: How did the idea for AgriNovus come about?

BB: AgriNovus came to life after I left state government, and I went to work for a law firm in Indianapolis, Ice Miller LLP. I had the ability (because I’m not an attorney) to do independent consulting work in the agricultural sector, and that’s how the AgriNovus relationship started.

In 2011, I was approached by the leadership of a group called Biocrossroads. They indicated that they had funding for a special consulting project.

They said: “We have an interest from one of our key partners, Dow Agrosciences (now called Corteva Agriscience) headquartered in Indianapolis. They want us to look at food and agricultural innovations across the state, and we don’t know much about that.”

Dow AgroSciences (an agricultural seed and crop protection company) saw themselves at the intersection of nutrition, health, life sciences, and agriculture. So they’re the ones who nudged Biocrossroads and said: “We think there’s more out there in this state around agriculture, technology, and innovation that isn’t really being fostered and accelerated. Nobody’s really paying attention to it.”

That’s what launched my work with AgriNovus.

Indiana primarily produces corn, soybeans, and wheat.

IFW: At AgriNovus, you tell the story of Indiana’s dynamic agbioscience sector. Tell us more about the critical gap in information you’re working to fill.

BB: We have a lot going on in Indiana in the agbiosciences, but nobody has been surfacing it. Nobody has been promoting it, and nobody has been telling the complete story.

Until now, we’ve told a very data-driven, commodity-focused, production agriculture story. We tend to default to the easy-to-access, data-driven “Census of Agriculture” statistics around acres planted of certain crops, number of different livestock species, or cash sales of our corn, soybean and wheat crops.

But we haven’t been telling the larger, comprehensive story of agriculture here—and definitely not the technology or innovation advancements in agriculture.

Part of what I’ve realized at AgriNovus is the challenge of telling technology and innovation stories. There’s not a simple data set you can use or website where you can find statistics or metrics on innovation.

The other part is: A lot of innovation happens inside companies, and for many of these companies, the things they are working on in their laboratories or R&D groups is confidential information.

So, as a state, we have tended to default to telling the stories that are most readily available to us as opposed to peeling back the layers and saying: “Wait a minute, ours is not just a story of traditional agriculture; ours is a story of food and agriculture, technology and innovation.”

Today—in thinking about economic disruption and next generation talent—that is really the story that Indiana needs to be telling, as opposed to the story of what people once thought agriculture was.

So AgriNovus takes a very additive approach to the story of the agbiosciences in Indiana. But we always lead with our foundation in farming—our heritage and our competitive strengths—because I think that’s one of the most critical factors of success in our innovation story.

IFW: What are the benefits of Indiana having that strong reputation as a traditional agriculture state?

BB: The benefit is you can come here and test innovation. You can come here and sell innovation. You can come here and research innovation—try it out—because we have the row crop production, the livestock production, and the specialty crop production across the state.  

Places like Silicon Valley are developing incredible amounts of technology that can be game-changing in agriculture; they just don’t have that market or test bed where they can experiment with equipment.

So for us, the question is: How do we start bringing these worlds together? How do we bring the world of what everybody knows production agriculture in Indiana to be alongside the world of science, technology, automation, data, logistics, robotics, and artificial intelligence?

That’s where our definition of Ag+Bio+Science comes to life. We’ve really stepped back, and said, “More than anything, this is a sector of convergence. It’s a sector that utilizes satellites technologies, sensors, robotics, autonomous vehicles, informatics, and drone technology.”

When you think about the next generation of our workforce and talent, we want young people to get excited about these possibilities.

IFW: Tell us more about your work engaging students and businesses in the story of agbiosciences in Indiana.

BB: At AgriNovus, we often say: “You didn’t realize there was this much going on from a business perspective in Indiana agriculture, or from a research collaboration perspective, or maybe even from a future career pathway perspective.”

If there are young people who are excited by robotics, by computer science, by drones, by the STEM fields that we all talk about, those are the young people we need to be sure understand that they can have a career path in food and agriculture in Indiana today.

Working in agriculture in Indiana doesn’t mean: “I have to be a farmer.” Many of these kids don’t have an interest in being a farmer—and that’s OK. They aren’t coming from farming families. But they could be a robotics engineer, a chemist, a geneticist, or an app developer for imagery-based companies in agriculture.

Along with students, our audience also tends to be business leaders and executives in other sectors of the Indiana economy. We want to engage with the leaders in Indiana’s pharmaceutical and life sciences communities, for example, to help them realize that there’s interplay in what they’re doing with food and agriculture. We want to make sure that companies that are involved in growing Indiana’s tech community realize that their best programs, algorithms, and predictive formulas could actually be applied in food and agriculture, too.

We’re trying to make sure that businesses realize: Maybe we have overlap. Maybe we have a capability in our innovation related to what’s happening in food and agriculture.

Drone technology can be utilized in an agricultural setting.

IFW: You’re also working to attract more out-of-state businesses to Indiana, as well. Tell us about that.

BB: We are now working alongside the Indiana Economic Development Corporation to attract more early-stage, growth-stage ag-tech companies to come to Indiana, and we’ve been pretty successful at that the last couple of years.

The question is: How do we put the state of Indiana and all of its assets on display for companies across the country—or even outside of the U.S.—who would benefit not only from Indiana’s great business climate, but also this collaborative Ag+Bio+Science community we have here?

It’s all about creating an ecosystem that serves as a magnet for people who want to build a company, find partnerships, do more research, or hire really talented people to be that next generation workforce innovating in agriculture.

IFW: Tell us one of your success stories so far. Is there a company or relationship that stands out as a good representation of your work?

BB: Definitely. One is a Brazilian digital agriculture company called Solinftec. Think IoT meets agricultural equipment meets logistics and tracking.

Very productive farm operations tend to have many pieces of equipment—many trucks and sprayers and so on. So Solinftec essentially helps them integrate all of this equipment in real-time and pull information from this equipment into one operational, data-driven production system with a unified software/hardware system.

They have operated this platform in Brazil for several years, and they currently have a 60 percent market share of the Brazilian sugarcane market, which is the world’s leader in sugarcane. So this a hugely successful company that was ready to grow by moving their technology platform into row crops, like corn and soybeans.

So where should they go to find a place where corn and soy bean production could be in their backyard? It just so happened that they found an Indiana farm—Tom Farms in Leesburg of Kosciusko County—and they started a relationship there.

When the Tom Farms Chairman, Kip Tom,  introduced me to the Solinftec team, they told us they were thinking about putting their new national headquarters in Champaign, Illinois, and through our work at AgriNovus, we were able to convince them to come to Indiana instead.

I emailed multiple people on the leadership team at Purdue University’s College of Agriculture and ag tech leaders in Indianapolis to help us make the pitch through AgriNovus.

Within a couple of weeks, Solinftec decided to put their footprint down in West Lafayette instead of Illinois. With that, came not only space at Purdue, but also state incentives to build their North American Headquarters in the State of Indiana.

Now, they’re growing at an incredible pace. They have really impressive national and global venture capital backing in the ag-tech arena specifically. They are that example of what’s possible with a global Ag+Bio+Science+Tech story. They are also one of our favorite stories because it shows the opportunity for all of this to come as the result of very personal relationships.

That matters a lot to me and the AgriNovus team. We always ask: How can we help you? How can we navigate with you? How can we make your entry point to the state of Indiana exciting, productive, and inspiring?

I wouldn’t say the things AgriNovus can offer always tips the scale in what companies are looking for, but I hope we can be the icing on the cake when we’re competing against other places, like Illinois or Iowa.

Gerry Dick, host of Inside Indiana Business, and Beth Bechdol, president + CEO of AgriNovus, record an episode of the “Indiana is Ag+Bio+Science” podcast.

IFW: In Indiana, who should be paying attention to your work, and how can they get involved?

BB: My team will always laugh when I answer the question: Who should care about our work? Because I say: “It’s everyone.”

At some point, it sort of is everyone in Indiana. I want everyone to know this story. I want people across Indiana to be proud of this as a future economic engine for our state and to think about it that way.

So who should care about the agbiosciences? Everybody should. What we hope people do is just get involved with our storytelling and our work to make Indiana agbiosciences known.

Some of this is as simple as signing up for our monthly newsletter and reading the stories of companies like Solinftec and others that we feature.

We have weekly podcasts, too. They’re called “Indiana is Ag+Bio+Science,” and we produce those with Gerry Dick from Inside Indiana Business. So take 10 minutes, subscribe to the podcast, and you’ll get to hear a voice of the agbiosciences.

You can also come to our new monthly community program, Quadrant, which is currently held in Indianapolis. We’re going take it on the road a few times in 2020, so it’s not just in Indy. We also have an annual event, the Agbiosciences Innovation Summit coming up on November 20.

So a lot of it is: Get plugged in. Pay attention. Read the stories. Let us change your heart, change your mind about what you think Indiana agriculture is, and let us take that one step further and help introduce you to the new Indiana agbioscience economy.

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.